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2022 Wilson Burnham Prize Guitar

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

Zoe: I'm going to ask you a little bit about your early life. I understand that you were born on your parents’ ranch in Sierra Nevada. Was there anything about that location that inspired you to pursue this particular career?

Wilson: It was always the forest. My parents were also involved in the wine and lumber industry, which was the biggest industry in that part of Eastern California. It was just assumed that if you wanted to do something, you’d do it. You have the forest around, and lumber available. Both my parents are very talented woodworkers.

Z: So it’s almost like it was in your blood right begin woodworking, right? How did you get started playing guitar?

W: My mom and my uncle had their own little band, and it was all the Wilson kids. It was just always there.

Z: So it was the family band that got you into playing guitar, and that led you towards making guitars?

W: Well, yes and no. I started playing a little bit when I was younger, and when I was eleven I picked up the guitar more seriously and taught myself how to read music. There was also an older cousin of mine who had just come back from Spain, and this guy could play anything: flamenco, classical, jazz, rock. I remember he started to play me some flamenco music on the guitar - I was hooked. At about the same time, when I was 12 years old, I saw an ad from the Martin Guitar Company. The gentleman was showcasing all these different types of wood, and I saw that and thought, “I’ve got all this in my backyard.” I realized that I wanted to make a guitar, and began researching the craft. Although I didn’t make my first guitar until I was about 30, I knew that I loved the guitar and working with my hands.

Z: How did you get into the world of modern dance? It seems very different from the world of woodworking that you grew up around as a child!

W: I started out as a music major in college, and I realized that being a music major wasn’t cut out for me. Music theory sucked, because it was too much math. I had always wanted to dance because my mom used to encourage me to do that, so I took a modern dance class and thought, “This is the only way I’m going to graduate college. If I’m not moving, I’m going to quit.”

Z: How did that dance experience lead you into the world of guitar-making?

W: I had studied classical guitar all through high school. When I was 18 years old, I was able to attend a week-long master class with Christopher Parkening, who was then considered America’s greatest guitar virtuoso. The guitar has always been a big part of my life. Dancing got me through college to graduate, and making guitars was always a dream of mine. In 1992, I started making dulcimers with the idea of getting my hands used to woodworking again and to start making instruments. I think it was the year 2000 when I finally made my first guitar and gave it to a friend of mine.

Z: What wood are you using to make this year's guitar?

W: I’ll be using spruce wood from Canada and East Indian rosewood milled in Milan. You can’t find wood like this anymore without paying a high price. This guitar will be sort of a sister to Marisa Sardo’s guitar that she won last year. The neck is Spanish cedar, which is a traditional wood used to make guitar necks, and the headstock will be made out of the same rosewood I’m using for the body.

Z: Are there any specific qualities that you want this guitar to have? What do you hope for the guitar to be able to express?

W: I'm always looking to create a guitar that has a huge voice, has a soul. Bel canto, it’s got to sing. It has to have presence, beauty, and elegance.

Z: Your work appears to be heavily inspired by historic instruments. Was there any particular inspiration to create guitars inspired by the past or was that something that just kind of struck you out of the blue?

W: It's something I've been interested in ever since I started playing classical guitar. When I was 12, I had a book called “The Classical Guitar” by Frederick Noad, and it featured lithographs of various players from the past. I always wondered, “What do these guitars sound like?” The very first guitar I made was a copy of an 1816 Martinez guitar, the original of which had been played by the great Fernando Sor. I was just curious as to what the guitar was going to sound like.

Z: Are there any similarities between being a luthier and being a modern dancer? As a ballet dancer, I know that a major part of my art is preservation and stewardship of tradition while still trying to further innovation. I don't want to answer for you but it does seem like, from what you've told me, that’s part of the draw of being a luthier for you.

W: There are so many other guitar makers who are trying to push the guitar towards bigger, bigger sounds because they want to put it on a bigger stage. Musicians are saying they want something louder. I think that, a lot of times, they’ve lost focus. The beauty, elegance, and depth of guitars from one hundred years ago isn’t going anywhere. I want to be able to make a contemporary double top sound modern and have all the depth from way back when.

Z: Is there any particular classical guitarist or luthier who inspires you?

W: Lately, the inspiration comes from some of the younger guitarists who come into my studio. They’re now starting to find their own voices, and that’s been a real source of inspiration for me.

Z: I think it's been really interesting to hear your point of view, combining modern techniques with more vintage sensibilities when it comes to crafting guitars. I have one last question for you, courtesy of Nathan Fischer himself. What is your beverage of choice while listening to a spruce top? What is your beverage of choice while listening to cedar?

W: If you’re going to listen to a spruce top, you should probably have a very, very good, enjoyable, Chardonnay. If you're gonna listen to cedar top, you need to have a Cabernet Sauvignon that came from Calaveras County in California. It's big, red, Italian-style wine. Honestly, that’s the kind of wine you need to listen to either a spruce top or a cedar top!

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